Hell is a fashionable and widely used word, but not a popular concept. Even to employ the term seriously is to put one beyond the pale in the minds of many who pride themselves on their intelligence and sophistication. Oddly enough, this attitude is found even among churchgoers. At the very least, the response is that last refuge of the meager mind: the smile-behind-the-hand, or the superior laugh. What people laugh at is one of the most exact of all definitions of what they are. Some have been known to laugh at Lear. To laugh at the terrible, the cruel, the majestic, is to tell much about the laugher, little about what is laughed at.
The English word hell is related to the Old English helan, meaning to hide or cover. It is not my purpose here to deal with the various words translated “hell” in the King James Version of the Bible, nor to go into the various meanings of the Hebrew sheol or the Greek hades. The purpose, rather, is to examine only one aspect of what the Bible teaches about that place where, we are told, the wicked (the unredeemed) are consigned after the Great Judgment. Most of the teachings of Jesus about this place involve the use of the Greek word geenna, derived from Gehenna (or Gehinnom), the valley of Hinnom, where in ancient days children were sacrificed to Moloch and where, later, trash was thrown and burned. Connotations of that which is condemned, useless, corrupt, and forever discarded cling to the word like a stench.
The eternal hell Jesus speaks of, however, is not a location chosen, as it were, at random in the universe. Rather, it has been “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41), “a universe of death, which God by curse/Created evil, for evil only good,/Where all life dies, death lives, and nature breeds,/Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,/ Abominable, inutterable, and worse/ Than fables yet have feigned, or fear conceived” (Paradise Lost, II, 622–28). As the word translated “prepared” is the same as that used to assert the preparation of the Millennial Kingdom (Matt. 25:34—“Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”) on earth, and of the “many mansions” of the Father’s house in heaven (John 14:2), and as the phrase “from the foundation of the world [cosmos]” applies to all, we confront at once the mystery of God’s sovereignty, omniscience, and judgment. He has from eternity known how he would discard those of his free creatures who would implacably resist his love and his will for their good and would choose instead death and hell. His Spirit will not plead with man forever. Furthermore, the place where “all things that offend” (Matt. 13:41) are to be confined (hidden and covered) will not be temporary or rehabilitative but permanent (Rev. 14:11).
Many controversies separate Christians on this topic. Chief among the questions perhaps are those relating to whether “fire” and other physical features are to be understood literally or figuratively (whether, in short, the nature of hell is material or immaterial); whether confinement of the wicked in a place of eternal punishment is compatible with God’s mercy; and whether the ultimate condition of the wicked will not be annihilation rather than continued consciousness.
It is not possible to debate these and similar issues in this brief writing. But it is only fair to the reader to acknowledge the context within which the following ideas are adduced. As to whether the “fire” is to be taken literally or not, if it can be agreed that the term at least suggests an environment conducive to misery, there need to be no present argument. As to whether it is compatible with God’s mercy for him eternally to isolate and separate from his presence that which is evil (and the fruit of evil, death), if we can at least agree that his mercy cannot be conceived as infecting his perfect holiness, we can get moving. And as to the annihilation theory, if it can at least be held in balance with seemingly contrary teachings (such as Jesus’s declaration that hell is a place “where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched,” and that there shall be “wailing and gnashing of teeth”), we may strike hands in a momentary bargain.
For the few moments that this fragile truce may last. I should like to consider one general truth that the Bible teaches us about the nature of hell.
It is an existence of loss. It is defined by the good things that are lacking—light, hope, love, purpose, beauty, joy. It is Jacques’s “sans” speech carried to the ultimate degree. And it is precisely what its inhabitants ask for. “Not thy will, O God, but mine be done. Not thy love, not thy purposes for me, not thy realm (the great universe itself), not thy thoughts, not thy wisdom, not (above all) thy laws, not (in short) thy life and presence and light—but me.” Satan first shouted this defiance; and he found that, lacking the power of creation and being rather entirely derivative and created, he could only reject, he could not replace. The rebel against God does not create a new environment; he merely occupies the condition resulting from his rejection of God’s environment. When one turns out the light, he does not create darkness; he merely enters its realm, where no light is. To know that one has what one has chosen, and that one has chosen Nothing, is a knowledge needing no literal fire (whether it be so or not) to augment despair.
Perhaps surpassing all losses will be that of being no longer in God’s mind and remembrance. We grow so familiar with the comforting words of Scripture about God’s tireless love for us, his patience with us, his passion for our redemption and our good, that the mind can scarcely conceive of being out of his mind, never to be thought of again, “free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: … cut off from thy hands” (Ps. 88:5). The same thought occurs tangentially in the millennial passage in Isaiah 65:20, where, after restoration of the longevity of the patriarchs has been promised, it is declared that the “sinner being a hundred years old shall be accursed,” or (more accurately) “held in no esteem.” Our worth is entirely derived from God’s evaluation of us—“the very hairs of your head are all numbered; fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows”—and that man whose implacable impenitence finally makes him of no worth to God is totally devalued indeed. Awareness of being forever out of the mind of God will blend with awareness of total worthlessness to help form the mood of hell.
Once in the New Testament, in Second Peter 2:4, the word “Tartarus” appears, the word Plato uses to identify the place where the incorrigibly corrupt are eternally confined. In that passage Peter speaks of the “chains of darkness,” suggesting confinement not so much by material bonds as by a total loss of dimension, purpose, meaning, and orderly thought. True, Peter is speaking of the “angels that sinned,” and of the place where they are now “reserved unto judgment”; but surely that place is not worse than hell, where even the fearful prospect of coming judgment (which at least gives a dim meaning to “future” in Tartarus) will not exist to give some shape to timelessness. Jude, too, speaks of “everlasting chains under darkness” (vs. 6), and both tell of the absence of God, for he is light and in him is no darkness at all. Men who love darkness rather than light shall have precisely what they desire, and in their darkness they shall not even comprehend the nature of light (John 1:5).
It may be permissible at this point to interject the thought that no more screamingly irrational an idea has ever been foisted onto a gullible public by the father of lies than the view that hell will be a place where the roistering of good fellows will raise the roof with gaiety and cheer. Fellowship is exactly what cannot exist. Eternally dark communion with a contemptible and corrupt self is not conducive to gay companionship.
There is, I think, another loss by which hell may be defined, a loss scripturally authenticated but about which some would disagree. That loss is the eternal death in hell of the human spirit, the pneuma. The body (soma) and the soul (psyche) join with the spirit to compose the triunity of man, reflecting the triunity of the Creator, in whose image man was made. The influence of classical thought has been so pervasive in the history of Western Christian thought that many assume man is a dual being, as Plato and Aristotle would have it, rather than a triune one, as the Bible presents him. Surely we know, however, that our spirits are dead in trespasses and sins unless they are quickened, made alive, by a creative act, in grace, of the Holy Spirit. We know, too, that the “natural” (spiritually dead) man is at enmity with God, and cannot know him, for God is spiritually discerned. To be made alive spiritually is, indeed, to be redeemed and to have restored the capability of knowing and communing with God.
The bodies of the wicked dead will be raised in corruption at the “second resurrection”; their souls (the personality, with its intellect, emotions, memory, and self-consciousness) will continue to exist; but their spirits will remain eternally dead. Whether this will generate in hell the eternal restlessness and angst, the endless search for identity and selfhood, which even in this life of common grace and mitigated unhappiness afflicts the sons of men, one cannot say. Perhaps the “cloud of unknowing” will be so complete that the darkened psychic consciousness, in a kind of total Baudelairian ennui, will undertake no quest, aware of everlasting futility. In the absence of light, dimension, or order, perhaps intellectual activity will be entirely chaotic and self-consuming, haunted by the possibility of there being questions, never by the hope of there being answers.
Surely there can exist in hell no possible outlet for that kind of intellectual curiosity which so joyfully and inexhaustibly expresses itself in this life in the study of our natural environment, the great artifice of the universe which God has made. No longer will “the invisible things” of God be “clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom. 1:20), for God’s absence means that nothing in hell will be “made” in the sense of providing an orderly environment, created by God for the joy of his creatures. Furthermore, the extinguishing of the light of conscience, a gift of God’s common grace that in this age enables even those “which have not the law [to] do by nature the things contained in the law” (Rom. 2:14), will make moral or ethical speculation impossible. The picture is one of interminable spiritual non-being and incessant psychic disorder within the eternal self-abhorring solitude of darkness.
It will be noted, I hope, that these lines have entirely skirted the question of physical torment in hell. Whatever may be the validity of Dante’s fecund imagination, there is no need, as it were, to add it to what is beyond question taught in Scripture—though I think that the burden of proof lies with those who assert that the body will be immune to hell’s misery, and that the Bible so teaches. Clearly, however, the worst anguish is always mental. “Think’st thou,” says Marlowe’s Mephistophilis, “that I who saw the face of God,/And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,/Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,/In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?”
In summary, perhaps the best way to emphasize the single theme these lines have tried to stress is to note the awful gulf between the limitless opportunities for being, doing, experiencing, and rejoicing in beauty, love, and meaning within the heavenly realm, in the light of God’s presence in the place he has prepared for those who love him, and, on the other hand, the bound impotence of hell. This feature of hell may be learned from a number of passages, some already mentioned, stressing the enchainment, the confinedness, the bindedness of the doomed. A single instance more, from many, must suffice here: in verse five of the Eighteenth Psalm we read, “The sorrows of hell compassed me.…” (True, David is speaking of sheol, the intervening place of departed spirits; but the conditions David shrinks from in horror adumbrate the hell that shall be.) Almost every word of this short clause breathes confinement and deadly immobility. Even the word translated “sorrows” (chebel) is translated “cord” or “rope” in other passages (e.g., Job 36:8; Ps. 140:5; Jer. 38:11), and denotes the delimitation of normal activity as well as physical pain—“pang,” as the word is translated in Isaiah 26:17.
Full and uninhibited employment of our creative capabilities is happiness; the possession of capabilities that one is forever barred from exercising is misery. In this vale of tears, the victim of a stroke who continues to possess consciousness without the capability of expressing it in motion, word, or response is properly the object of our intense compassion. To multiply the anguish of such a condition by the knowledge that it exists only as the consequence of one’s own determined, implacable choice, and then to add the element of eternity, is to imagine an imponderably vast disaster.
The prospect, indeed, is so overwhelming that one hastens, as if shaking oneself out of a nightmare, to read a bit further on in the psalm already quoted from: “In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried unto my God; he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears.… He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy.… He brought me forth also into a large place; he delivered me because he delighted in me.… The LORD my God will enlighten my darkness.” “I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye” (Ezek. 18:32).
Calvin D. Linton is professor of English literature and dean of Columbian College, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C. He holds the A.B. from George Washington and the A.M. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins.
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